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Or perhaps I’ll call it The Fourteen Days of Christmas.  Today, as I am writing, it is January 6, 2011, a little off my usual schedule because we’ve been celebrating a long Christmas, but now it’s over.  And you know what?  I really like Christmas spread  o  u  t,  taking as much of  December as it needs.

If you are among the generations of through-and-through Americans whose big days are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day your holiday ended at midnight, December 25th, just as ours did before this year.  Craming so many celebrations into such a small space of time, it would seem the date was more important than the day.  After weeks, and even months of preparation Christmas is over in a flash, and now it’s gone for another year. The jolly old elf, his reindeer, and all of his helpers are taking a well-deserved rest, and that includes moms and dads everywhere.

However, if you don’t live in the USA customs for the celebration of the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ can be different, and are actually more in keeping with the authentic event than all the frantic madness we impose upon ourselves. 

Don’t think I’m a Scrooge grumbling “Bah-Humbug” through this wonderful season of merriment and joy. I’m not.  I love Christmas, the carols, the cards, the parties, the well wishes and even the shopping.  And more; before AD, Ken and I so looked forward to driving through the neighborhoods seeing the decorated homes, malls and the beautiful displays on the grounds of churches everywhere, especially the live nativity scenes where we could let our imaginations go and become part of what occurred more than 2,000 years ago: the birth of a tiny baby whose life and teachings have changed the world.   Yes, Christmas is a beautiful and unique celebration – and different – as we all know elsewhere in the world.

My family and friends who have close ties to Mexico tell me that it is January 5, when the children leave their shoes out to be filled with gifts – not their stockings, but their shoes – and gifts not coming from our white-bearded friend – but from the Three Wise Men who arrive on January 6.  Think about it; isn’t the tradition of gift giving at Christmastime based on The Three Wise Men who traveled from afar bringing the Christ Child gold, frankincense and myrrh as they worshipped the New Born King?

Leading up to the 24th and 25th of December there are posadas and celebrations where loved ones reenact the blessed event, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day being a more reverent time.  But no matter what the custom or tradition, it is a joyous celebration for Christians everywhere.

This year I have found wonderful flexibility in December.  Perhaps taking a bit of the customs from south of the border.  Singing The Twelve Days Of Christmas, while being a delightful carol, sounds a little much for me.  Who needs all of those maids amilking and noisy French horns?  But 14 days of Christmas with some light festivities, and then a few days of rest in between parties is perfect.  When Ken was well, it was tradition to spend Christmas Eve at daughter Julie’s house, Christmas morning at our house, and Christmas afternoon at grandson Sean’s house.  It seemed we spent as much time in the car as we did with family.

Ken no longer travels well, so I declined all invitations to leave our home.  “Then we’ll come to your house,” said Sean.  “What evening would be good?”  I gave him a date and beginning the Tuesday before Christmas we dined and relaxed with those who could attend, and then opened gifts with no rush in having to get the kids home and in bed, or dropping someone off at the next stop.  A few days later we did it all over again with other members of our family.

“How joyful it has been to spread out the Holiday,” I emailed our cousin, Penny, whose family has also multiplied over the years, living in various parts of Oregon.    She agreed, saying  they also spread the Holiday over several days, commenting on how well it has worked for their family.   Christmas Day can be any day we choose.

If any of these changes mattered to Ken it’s highly unlikely.   He no longer has any curiousity or interest in brightly wrapped gifts, decorations, or colorful lights, and has no understanding of the holiday.  But always a social person, he still seems to enjoy having people around him, and especially the little ones.  Our last Christmas celebration was Monday evening with daughter Julie, husband Tim; son John and wife Marisol, and their two little ones, Joaquin and Maya.  The eight of us represented four generations, and when Ken looked at four-year-old Maya, seeing her beautiful brown eyes and dark hair, he exclaimed, “What a little doll.”

With no memory of who she is or where she fits into this vast puzzle we call family, Alzheimer’s has not taken away his appreciation of the beauty of children, and for that I am grateful. 

So after all is said and done, the gifts opened, hugs and kisses for everyone, and the last guest drove out of sight what did we get for Christmas?  The best gift of all:  Family and friends – in and out of our home — bringing their presents and presence, giving us their gifts of time and themselves.  Who could ask or want for anything more?

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A block print by Irene Weeks, the mother of Ann Romick who also suffered from Alzheimer's

Last year, a week or so before Christmas, I flipped through our church magazine stopping at an article titled, “Be The Answer To Someone’s Prayer.”  Captivated by the thought I read the article through.

As a woman of faith and active in my church I have always striven to do those requests asked of me, but never have I through of my acts as being an answer to someone’s prayer.  I believe in prayer, that prayers are answered, and yes, I believe “angels” help many people.  My favorite Christmas movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life,” but “me” as an answer to a prayer – it’s never even been a consideration.  So my answer would have to be – I’m not sure.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I believe I am, for the most part, a charitable person donating to many worthy causes, dropping money into the Salvation Army’s kettle, helping others, and I loved all of the old TV angel programs often to the point of shedding a few tears at the happy endings.  I have also been known to hand money to a guy carrying a gas can who asks for help in getting his car filled and the family back home.  “It’s a scam, Mom,” I was repeatedly told by any one of my adult sons.  “That’s all right,” I have answered.  “If it is a scam, then he has a problem, but I did the right thing in helping.”  Is that an answer to someone’s prayer – again I’m not sure – or am I a sucker for a scam?

I also received an email about a hospice physician living in Colorado who was forced out of a rainy evening’s traffic into a gas station because his car kept stalling. (I’m not sure if the writer was a man or woman as it was written in first person, and it really doesn’t matter.  However, for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to the person as male.)

Somewhat exasperated he looked around only to find himself stalled near a very troubled woman who appeared to have fallen down next to a gas pump.  Asking if she needed help, the tearful, haggard woman said she didn’t want her children to see her cry.  Our Good Samaritan noticed the older car filled with stuff and three kids in the back – one in a car seat.  Summing up the situation he took his credit card and sliced it through the machine nearest her gas pump saying, “I’m the answer to your prayer.”  She looked at him with surprise, and he followed with, “You were praying, weren’t you?”

As the car filled he went next door to a McDonald’s coming back with two large bags of food for the kids and a cup of coffee for her.  The kids tore into the burgers and fries like young wolves.  The woman shared her story of being abandoned by a worthless boy friend, and was now hoping to make a new start by returning home to her parents with whom she had been estranged for more than five years. They were looking forward to her and the children with open arms, and offered to help until she got back on her feet.

Feeling much better, she thanked her benefactor, and then asked, “What are you – some kind of angel?”  “No,” he chuckled.  “This time of year the angels have a lot to do, so sometimes God has to use regular people.”

He was the answer to her prayers.  And by the way, when he tried to start his car the motor turned over immediately and purred like a kitten.

Christmas: the time of year when we begin to think about being kinder, more charitable, more aware of mankind and their problems, and thoughtfully wonder, “How can I help others?”  And then we get busy writing cards, shopping, wrapping, getting presents ready for mailing so loved ones will receive their packages on time.  In a whirlwind of doing good, we often find excuses for not taking the time to think of doing “more good.”  Such was the case one blustery evening a week before Christmas last year.

It was near dusk, but light enough outside to see the wind blowing the never-ending rain of leaves from our trees when the door bell rang.  Before me stood a man in his 30s holding a rake; he spoke with an accent, but his English was good.  “May I remove the leaves from your lawn for a donation?” he asked.  My thoughts were not kind. Ken was in a bad mood, and I was busy trying to prepare dinner, needing to get back into the kitchen before something burned.  “Oh bother” I thought, “I just raked them yesterday, and I’m busy, and my husband has Alzheimer’s, and I need to see if he’s getting into something, and you’re here to rake leaves?  Why now?”

I all but said, “No thank you,” just to have him gone, and then I remembered the magazine article and the email tale of the physician and the down-trodden woman – whether it was fact or fiction – it didn’t matter — it was a beautiful story.  Before I could speak my uncaring thoughts, sending him away with his rake, a kinder, gentler thought raced into my mind.  “Perhaps you can be an answer to his prayer.”

“Sure,” I said. “Go ahead. There’s a recycle can next to the house.  Put the leaves in that.”  Suddenly, I felt better, less harried – less annoyed – a little more in tune with the season.

From my purse I took two matching bills placing each in a front pocket of my jeans.  If he did a sloppy job I would give him one, I decided.  For a good job he’d get both.  Returning to the kitchen it wasn’t long before the bell rang once again.  It was darker now, but still with enough light to see the lawn was perfectly clear except for the still-fluttering leaves falling to the ground.  With both hands I reached into my pockets and handed him the two bills.  “Good job,” I added.  “Thank you,” he said with a broad smile, “and have a Merry Christmas.”

In the realm of Sister Teresa’s life it certainly wasn’t a big deal, but maybe he didn’t need a big deal.  Perhaps he needed just a few more dollars – for whatever.  Was I an answer to his prayer?  I don’t know, but I felt good.

This year of 2010 has not been my favorite year.  There has been illness and death among our friends and family.  Ken’s Alzheimer’s has continued to plateau downward making his care increasing difficult, and the automobile accident in February which nearly took my life are not experiences I would like to repeat  Yet from the ashes of sadness and disaster I have found blessings.  And yes, I must acknowledge the abundant answers to my prayers through – not only God’s angels – but through the human angels He has sent to answer not only my prayers, but the prayers of those near and dear to me.

What better example is there about being the answer to the prayers of others than words from the Lord Himself as he reminds his disciples in the Bible (King James) —  Matthew 25:35-40 when he says, “For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; Naked and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'”

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We were on a date, Ken and I, just getting to know one another.  We had been to the zoo in San Francisco.  While walking back to his car we noticed a man in the parking lot with a handful of tiny American Flags – paper – the size of a postage stamp – glued, possibly, to a tooth pick.  Wearing a military cap, and one of the picks stuck into the button hole of his lapel, he didn’t have to say he was a veteran.  We just knew.  It was also Memorial Day and the veteran was soliciting donations for the VFW or some other worthy veterans’ group.  Ken stopped, took out his wallet and handed the man a dollar bill.  In return my date accepted one of the tiny American flags and, with the accompanying straight pin, I placed it on his shirt collar.  Mind you, when we were dating, a dollar bill was worth a dollar – 100 pennies — and could have paid for both of us at the neighborhood movie.  I was impressed.  My boy friend was generous. 

My husband – who happens to be the same guy who took me to the zoo – has always been generous; not only with money, but with his time and energy.  If someone needed help he was the first to step forward.  Saturdays were often lost at home because Ken was helping a friend or a neighbor do some job that needed one more pair of hands.  So the chores I had lined up for “Honey” to do were postponed until another Saturday.  He had an insatiable desire to help others – to be of service – to “Pay It Forward” long before anyone ever heard of the book made into a movie.

 Several years ago, when Ken was better and we enjoyed life together, we saw the movie titled “Pay It Forward.”  If you didn’t see it the story was about a young boy who believed in doing good.  No one taught him, no one told him to be kind, to be caring, and to think of others.  The gift of charity came with his packaging – a spiritual gift.  It was one of those feel-good movies with a sad ending, which possibly sealed his message of paying it forward on the hearts of all who saw it.

          

The boy’s outline for doing good lay in three steps:  Watch for opportunities to help someone, do something nice for someone you don’t know, and spread the word.  When a surprised recipient asked “Why are you doing this?” the answer was to pay it forward, and the recipient could continue the good work by helping three other people — instantly making the world a better place – and then those three people could help three more people until everyone everywhere understood about paying it forward.

 

Surprisingly, I found on line that through the book and the movie a foundation was created to educate others about changing the world through good deeds, and November 17 is “Pay It Forward Day.”  I am also impressed at how contagious it becomes.

 

My friend Jack who is on Facebook wrote on his page, “I stopped by the grocery store and just staked out the people waiting in line.  I noticed an elderly lady, and as she neared the check out I politely asked if I could pay for her groceries?  ‘Yes!’ she answered, shedding a tear, as did I, and I paid.

 

“When she was through the line I explained how ‘Paying It Forward’ works.  Thrilled with the whole concept, she left saying that she was going home and bake cookies for the ladies at the bank.”

 

Jack later told me he went back to the store the morning after he had paid for the older woman’s groceries.  “The same cashier was working and said she could not stop telling people what I did, which inspired them to follow the example.  She, for instance, paid the dinner bill for an elderly couple at a Mexican restaurant.  The response from their waiter, the manager and the couple was unbelievable.”

 

Comments from other friends quickly filled Jack’s page, and with his permission, some posts are printed below:

 

“Wanted to follow up on the ‘Pay It Forward’ idea, but since I missed the actual day I decided to make it a quasi ‘random acts of kindness’ instead.  I was at IHOP w/my Mr. & son, and noticed there was a woman eating by herself.  When my waitress gave me my check, I asked for the gal’s also.  The waitress thought it was great.  I told her it was because of my friend Jack and paying it forward.  Jack, you are an absolute doll! Someone who understands true charity and practices it.  LOVE and admire your huge and expansive heart.  I am grateful to be your friend. You are amazing, Jack!  Now, that’s the Holiday spirit!”

 

 “Awwww Jack.  I love it. I’m going to do the same……”

 

“I try to do this on a regular basis!  It’s amazing how good it makes you feel to do something unexpected for others.”

 

“I’ve done that on the Bay Bridge – paid for the person behind me as I drive through.”

 

“You made me cry, Jack, you are too kind.  God bless you.”

 

“What a beautiful thing you did Jack.  Brought tears to my eyes.  I will certainly begin to pay it forward.”

 

“You topped me, Jack.  Near Halloween some bigger kids saw my ‘Trick or Treat’ candy in my cart and said, ‘I want to come to your house.’  They were buying a bag of cookies, and I grabbed their bag, handed it to the cashier for her to ring up on my bill, and tossed it back saying, ‘Happy Halloween.’  They were shocked and said, ‘Thank you, ma’am!’ Kidding, I said, ‘I’m going to take those back.  How about Miss.’ I love surprising people like that.”

 

“I give candy canes to the toll takers on the bridge.”

 

“Jack, I haven’t seen you or spoken with you in a decade or more.  When I read your post, memories of you came flooding back!  This is SO YOU!  I will put this on top of my TO DO list for tomorrow.  Thanks for reminding us to take the time to pay it forward.”

 

 If Alzheimer’s had not been in his way I know Ken would be doing good deeds for other people the year round not even remembering the movie.  After all, he was known to many as the nicest guy in the world. However, I know he is not the only one with that title, especially as we enter into this wonderful season of hoped-for peace and goodwill to all mankind.

 

It’s good to know that there are so many nice people out there doing thoughtful things for others, and many more who just need to be reminded. The only thing I will challenge about the November date is that it’s too close to Christmas. Christmas: when most everyone is kind-hearted and thinking of others.  Perhaps they should have made “Pay It Forward Day” sometime in mid-January – after the Holidays are over; when it’s cold and full of winter, when the lights are gone and the Christmas trees are waiting at the curb for the recycling truck, and our thoughts are about just getting home where it’s warm and inviting; when we might be inclined to fall back into thinking mostly of our own comfort — ourselves. January: when it can be dark and gloomy, and the storms of nature and life keep pounding at our door.  That’s when we need to do and say, “Pay It Forward and Keep It Going.”  Keep it going into the brightness of spring, the lazy days of summer, and into the colorful charm of autumn as Jack Frost reminds us once again of another winter, and a year filled with generosity. May we all strive to make the entire year glow with the Christ-like goodness we all have deep within our hearts.

 

Meanwhile, as you are finishing that last bit of Christmas shopping, don’t forget to pay a little something forward.

.

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Is it Thanksgiving that kicks off the Holiday Season, or is it Halloween?  While the “they” forces are debating the question I’ll take a quick sentimental journey back to my own childhood remembering Christmas decorations lurking on the high shelves of our local “5 and 10 Cents” stores waiting for the Halloween masks and costumes to disappear.  No different from merchants of today, they couldn’t wait to push an early start for Santa’s helpers to swing into action.  My sister Janet and I used to ask one another, “What happened to Thanksgiving?”  Even at 9 and 12 we were aware that every holiday had its own tradition, and it wasn’t Christmas, but Turkey Day that arrived in November.   In school we had learned of the pilgrims sharing their harvest with the local Indians and giving thanks to the Almighty.  Nice beginning.   America’s first Thanksgiving has long since been tradition, and we continue to celebrate as the first gusts of cold air remind us that winter (and Christmas) is, indeed, on its way, but first let’s have our day of gratitude.

When we were children both Ken and I spent Thanksgiving day with family — not friends — family; unless the friends joined us for dinner.  As youngsters we were yet to meet, but family traditions were pretty much the same.  Dinner was either at home, or everyone gathered at someone else’s house; that house belonging to anyone on the long list of the aunts and uncles.

After we were married we continued to share with one another the Thanksgiving traditions of our parents, aunts and uncles. It was a little more difficult because we now had his family and my family from which to choose.  It was also noticed that our cousins were  growing up, getting married and having children, as were we.   With so many invitations and so many relatives, the older generation soon realized that traditions needed to change — not disappear — just become less rigid,  less cumbersome, evolving — even morphing — into a family solidarity of  love  and genuine affection for one another — which they did —  all the while respecting the new chosen Thanksgiving traditions of the younger generation.

We settled on Grandmother’s house – either one.  When Ken’s parents, Rose and Nick, began to have health problems we brought our brood, their brood and Rose and Nick, health permitting, to the home of my parents; a country setting located in Northern California’s Sonoma County.  For years my personal tradition was to arrive on Monday to help my mother prepare; making pies, cooking ahead and cleaning – getting ready for family on Turkey Day.

It was during dinner that last year when I noticed my mother seemed to be talking endlessly about not much of anything.  Her dinner plate was untouched as she droned on and on until my father said, “Irene will you stop talking and eat your dinner.”   She paused, took a few bites and began her filibuster once again.  I had noticed her being inattentive the previous three days, losing concentration and not listening.   Later, much later, we realized she was slipping away into Alzheimer’s.

Nick and Rose had already journeyed into the disease.  It was more than 35 years ago when doctors weren’t even certain what was wrong;  “Just old age,” was the usual diagnosis, “or senility – maybe dementia.”  The medical community groped and we did too.  Uncertain about what to do, we did the best we knew finally placing them in full care facilities when we could no longer cope.

My parents moved back to the Bay Area to be near us so we could supervise and be a part of their care, and life continued.  So did tradition, but once again a new one:  Thanksgiving dinner was at our house just as I had promised Mama.

Years before when I could see my mother was growing tired, not so much because of the work involved with family gatherings, but more of the house being filled with company; the laughter and chatter of adults, the clamor and joyful sounds of children, the cry of a new baby seemed to tire her.  Interesting, no matter how much we might love family and parties there comes a time when a little peace and quiet is better.  My parents were ready for love and devotion to be served in small portions.  I suppose we can compare the often overwhelming joy of family to a lifetime of being stuffed with Thanksgiving dinners – some better than others – but appreciated none the less.  When age finally dictates after such a life-long feast, and we are filled to the brim, all that is wanted is a very thin slice of pumpkin pie.  I understood what she meant; enough was enough.

Nevertheless, she worried about letting go of the reins of her tradition, “If I don’t have the family come to our home, then where would they go?”  Smiling a sad smile I reassured her, “Then they will come to my house, and when I’m not able someone else will have the family Thanksgiving at their home.  There will always be someone to hold it together because family tradition is so precious.  Just let me know when you and dad are ready to let it go.  I’ll be there.”

We took photos after dinner that year: family photos, group photos, candid photos, couples photos and Mom and Dad photos.  With everyone being in a jovial mood, Dad made the announcement, “This is the last Thanksgiving here at the farm.  Mama just isn’t up to it any longer.”  The invisible baton of tradition was handed to me and for all of these years I have held it close.  It has changed, been reshaped, gotten smaller – and larger – depending on the number of guests.  The door of Ken’s and my home swings wide, and there was/is always  room for one more.

Since Ken’s AD Thanksgiving is always the holiday which hangs precariously in limbo until November.  By then I know whether we can do it one more time — or not.  In October we had a small family gathering.  Ken was very good.  Somewhere in his damaged mind there remains a spark of social.  He did so well that evening I decided yes; we would have Thankgiving dinner at our house once again.  Our daughter Julie and her daughter-in-law Marisol did the cooking last year, and what a wonderful gift it was.  This year I will have Ben to help when he isn’t watching Ken, and those coming will all bring a dish of something fabulous for the table, as usual.  What a bounty of blessings abides in my home.  I am forever filled with gratitude.

Last Thanksgiving I wrote about “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevya and his ever-changing tradition and reluctantly accepting what he could not change when his daughters began their own traditions.  I see my battered baton fragmenting as did Tevya’s; bits and pieces scattering in many directions as members of our family move to various locations throughout our great land, but that’s okay even though we will miss them.   I think of tradition as a lighted candle –  like love.  It’s by sharing, giving it away,  allowing it to spread that  it becomes bigger, better and brighter.

Following the “tradition” of Tevya and his humble friends I decided last year to place a metaphoric fiddler on my roof as a reminder that in spite of the adversities we all have, life is good.  As far as I know my fiddler remains.  Listen, once again I do believe I hear the lilting strains of music.

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For Charlie Brown’s group happiness is a warm puppy.  For most kids it’s Santa Claus in the mall, Christmas morning and a new bike.  For lovers it’s their next meeting; a bride and groom their wedding day; students – graduation; for the unemployed it’s finding a job, and to a billionaire watching his stocks double is cause to gleefully celebrate.  For a young couple happiness comes with a new baby, and baby’s first smile brings immeasurable joy to its mother.   Happiness can be as constant as the surf splashing against the sand, elusive as shadows on a moonless night, and as fragile as a dandelion puff.  Happiness is many things to many people, but for me happiness is a choice.

I used to be a pouter.  Not recently, but when I was a young teen I somehow came to the belief that if I looked sad there would be a vast number of boys and girls who would want to be my friend if only to cheer me.  Illogical conclusion: sad had more appeal than happy. 

Our group of girls often went to local teen dances on Friday and Saturday nights.  The adorable bouncy girls with smiling faces were soon asked to dance while I sat against the wall, arms folded across my chest looking glum, hoping a cute guy, or not so cute, would take pity and ask me to dance.  I was the absolute archetype of a wall flower, and I didn’t know why, nor did any of my friends tell me to put a smile on my face and look happy.  Maybe my girl friends didn’t see me as a sad-looking dance dunce, but I was and I didn’t like it

Eventually I figured it all out.  It was more of a growing process, a maturing process when realization cleared the mystery concerning adorable girls.  It wasn’t about adorable, but more about bouncy and smiling faces.  My friends looked happy and I didn’t.  No one, even the kindest of cute guys, or not so cute, wanted to be stuck for any amount of time with Saddie Sad Sack.  So it was that I began my long journey in choosing to be happy.  Happiness didn’t come from without, it came from within.

Happy is an easy choice when the fates smile, when Mr. Right comes along, when babies arrive in addition to promotions and salary increases, when a new house is acquired and the lawn gets cut.   Just as in the story books:  “And they lived happily ever after.”

Time for a reality check:  Snow White’s babies had colic and threw up all over her favorite dress (actually her only dress), Cinderella’s prince was a lazy oaf who expected her to run the entire kingdom by herself, and Beauty’s beast, after all was said and done, turned out to be a grumbling turkey still decked out in the clothing and skin of a handsome fairy-tale prince. 

In spite of it all Snow, Cinder and Beau decided to work through life’s problems with their men, Charming, Charming and Charming, seeking help if needed setting happiness, once again, as their goal.   The babies grew into delightful children; the lazy oaf, threatened by Cinder’s Fairy Godmother who arrived with a pumpkin and a bunch of rats, fully accepted his responsibilities.  Under the prince’s guidance the kingdom flourished even without the touch of Godmother’s magic wand.  The doctor assigned to our snarling, growling beast removed several irritating rose thorns from Charming’s bottomside, which had been hidden under his very tight tights, returning him immediately to the prince of Beauty’s dreams.   

Life does ebb and flow.  While we would all like to remain in the flow, it just doesn’t work that way.  Adversity is a part of everyone’s life no matter what their rank or station.

If we are smart, during the good times when choosing to be happy is easy, we need to recognize our bounty of blessings and place them in a memory bank for future reference.  It’s during the ebb, the tough times, getting caught in the under current of misery when it’s difficult to say, “I’m happy.”  Yes, life can be miserable, and at times we all walk through the Valley of Doom and Gloom.  Interesting place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there.  Remaining in misery unless there is a clinical problem is also a choice.

It is not my intention to be a Pollyanna, constantly in denial, never acknowledging that things may go wrong, did go wrong, are wrong, or that life can become an overwhelming challenge, or that life is, at times, the absolute pits.  However, it is my intention to advise all the Snow Whites,  Cinderells,  Beautys, and their Prince Charmings to recognize that life does have a mean left hook and when you get whacked it’s best to meet it head on.  Dodging, denying, and hiding under the covers won’t make adversity go away.

When Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it was a tragic blow even though we were not surprised.  Knowing it was deeply entrenched in the family we had  thought we could somehow sidestep it if he ate right, exercised, and continued to live a clean, wholesome life.  We were wrong.  “Your husband has Alzheimer’s.”  That’s what the doctor said and that’s how he said it.

Did we go home happy, smiling, clicking our heels about his disease?  Of course not!  No matter how well prepared we were, the news was devastating.  We were sad.  We cried and finally we accepted the diagnosis, and then we took a road trip, planning to squeeze everything we could into a limited amount of time before the disease robbed Ken of his ability to be Ken.

I have long understood about the link between acceptance and happy before I listened to Michael J. Fox as he was interviewed for his book, “Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist – Always Looking Up,” but it was good to hear him verbalize what he too had discovered.  It was accepting his disease that finally brought him to happiness after making peace with Parkinson’s and then moving forward with his life.  Fox also emphasized how awful it would be to live in despair, but on the plus side mentioned how this adversity had led to so many amazing people and places.  I couldn’t agree more for I too have rediscovered the goodness, compassion, love and concern which is found in good people everywhere.

So I choose to be happy.  I answer the phone with a cheerful voice and keep the “Woe is me” off limits. Do I have sad times?  Do I cry?  Certainly, but I don’t remain in the negative because I choose to be happy.  There is not room for both.  My new answer to, “How are things going?” is “Smoothly.”  My grandson, Brain, tells me a better word is “Swimmingly,” whatever that means.  But then again “Swimmingly” might be a good response if it means going against the current and making it?  Perhaps I will change “Smoothly” to “Swimmingly.” 

Looking way down from where I perch in the sunlight I see the dark pit of despair, but using my right to choose I choose to not go there.  Being happy while coping with any of the Devil’s diseases is something one must choose to be on a daily basis.  That’s why each and every morning I remind myself, “Today, I choose to be happy.”

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My mother was the most charitable person I have ever known.  From the time I was a little girl I remember strangers standing at our front door while she made a sandwich as he waited, or fed another lunch in exchange for washing our 3rd-floor windows both inside and out.  There was never a thought these people were anything other than what they claimed – down, out and hungry — as she allowed them to work for food during those Great Depression years. 

It wasn’t as though we were much better off with my dad doing piece work for a small steel company.  When the order was filled he went home with his few dollars to buy food, pay the rent, and hopefully the utilities.  Yet my mother managed to stretch the meager dollars to care for us and to help the less fortunate.  She and my dad prided themselves on never going on “Relief,” which was the welfare program of the 1930s.  They were fiercely independent, and, perhaps, to a fault proud, but that’s who they were.  They could take care of themselves and they did.

During World War II and the peaceful, economic healthy years which followed, I watched my mother continue her service to mankind through our church and other philanthropic organizations.  Nor did she choose to treat herself to some delicacy at the soda fountain or bake shop.  Rather than be frivolous she would take the money saved and donate the coins to a worthy cause.  Mama always felt fortunate and blessed to be self-sustaining.  This pattern continued for both my parents all of their lives.

One day, late in life, Mama was taking a bundle of newspapers to the garage for recycling.  Stepping down the one step of their entryway, she lost her balance and fell.  Bruised and bleeding she picked herself up from the cement, grateful no bones were broken.  Stalwart that she was, my mother insisted ice packs and a little rest were all she needed.

The next day, John, a representative from our church stopped by their home for his regular monthly visit. Finding her battered and bruised he asked what had happened.  Hearing Mama tell of her fall, he immediately said, “Irene, you need a hand rail at your front door.”

Sounds of a hammer and saw awakened my parents the very next morning.   Investigating they found John building the needed hand rail.  “I can do that,” protested my father.  “Now you won’t have to,” answered John, continuing his project.  “Then let me pay you for the materials,” Dad insisted.  “You can’t afford me,” replied John.   Humbly my parents accepted their gift.

Later my mother told me that she was surprised at her feelings of submission – of allowing someone to fill a need for them.  Being the giver all of her life she didn’t quite understand feeling so good about receiving.  Then she thought of the triangle of doing God’s work.  “Without people in need, and we were in need,” she explained, “other people might never have the opportunity to serve, to experience being charitable. With God as the director, I became part of the triangle.  Instead of feeling embarrassed about accepting John’s charitable offering I felt humble and grateful, and very warm inside.  I guess part of my learning was to be a grateful receiver.”

My mother’s last years took her into the depths of Alzheimer’s.  Slowly she faded from the vibrant woman she was into a child I could only imagine I might have known.  A little temperamental and stubborn at times, caring for her was still relatively easy.  Her walk with the demon of diseases took a little more than four years before she passed on peacefully in her sleep. 

In another dimension my mother is probably musing about the last chapters in her book of life as she continues to grow in her appreciation of being a grateful receiver.  Knowing my mother, however,  she’s also back doing God’s work: charity, which is the pure love of Christ. 

Care giving for a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s is of that same charity, but is so often a thankless job.  The thought of being part of God’s triangle somehow escapes as the tedious days and endless months and years continue with no relief in sight.  And gratitude for this horrible disease?  There is none.  Yet, during this time of my accident recovery I have found endless gratitude, especially in finding such capable employees.  Both of Ken’s caregivers, Ben and David, have my utmost appreciation.  At the end of their day, I would imagine they feel downtrodden and exhausted, but they continue caring for Ken with love and kindness.  And while Ken is the recipient of their goodness, I am the one filled with gratitude, making me the grateful receiver.

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“Hi.  This is Marvalee.”  “How good it is to hear from you,” I replied, “and what a nice surprise.  How long will you be here?”  Her voice always sounded bright and chipper with a touch of breathiness; the breathy part was that of a singer, and Marvalee was not only a singer, but a dancer as well, and had been most of her life. “I’m here from Maui visiting my mom,” she explained. “It’s her birthday you know.”  Yes, I knew, and I remembered the gala birthday parties Ken and I attended celebrating with Eva as her friends and family gathered to sing and dance away the previous year.  Marvaleee continued, “If you are free, I would love to come over and sing a few songs for Ken.” “That would be just lovely,” I answered.

The daughter of Ed and Eva, who were also entertainers – musicians —  and I use the past tense because they no longer perform.  Ed has long since passed on, a victim of Alzheimer’s, and following his inability to continue as their leader, members of the colorful band dispersed and retired.   Soon after Ed’s death, Mother Eva was stricken with the same dreaded disease, and has been with a caregiver for nearly ten years. 

The family, all from Hawaii, came to the Mainland to entertain in the best way they knew: songs and dancing Hawaiian style.   During the heyday of luaus, fire dances, flowing muumuus and island shirts, the band was very successful.  Natural musicians, most played by ear providing what Ken and I called the most danceable music in town.

Attending a luau whenever we could get tickets, Ken soon became known as a good sport.  Catching the eye of one of the gorgeous dancers, he was soon invited on stage to learn the hula or some other exotic dance.  My husband could be such a clown,and loved being in the limelight.  Wrapped in a grass skirt and wearing a lei he swayed back and forth as if he knew what he was doing.  He didn’t.  When the music stopped, Ken and the chosen others, bowed to a cheering round of applause, and returned to their tables – laughing.  He was, as always, a fun, if not an embarrassing, date.  And Marvalee, whose beauty and dancing rivaled no one, could always find him no matter where we were sitting.

 Soon after she called, the bell rang.  My door opened wide welcoming Marvalee and her friend, Mary.  The two burst into song, “Oh you beautiful doll……..”  My spirits were lifted even with my considerable hair loss and scar across my forehead.   Entering, we exchanged hugs and Alohas.  Approaching Ken for the same hug, he stiffened and drew back as I warned them not to get too close, he needed time to be comfortable with newcomers.  He was no longer a good sport, nor was he a fun date, and he didn’t remember Marvalee.

 Living most of her time away from the Mainland, she had no way of knowing how much Ken had regressed.  The fun-loving man she had remembered was gone.  Rather he sat down in a chair and glared at her, his lips drawn in a tight, straight line.  “At times Mama looks at me with those same tight lips,” Marvalee commented, Mary agreeing.  We compared notes.  We hadn’t seen Eva since January, but at the time she smiled at us and while she didn’t know exactly who we were, she knew we were important in her life.  “Probably not any more,” said Marvalee with sadness’.  “Most of the time Mama’s eyes are vacant and she doesn’t remember me – nor any of the family.”

Later Marvalee opened her music case and brought out a polished ukulele.  Strumming a few cords, she adjusted the strings and began.  Lilting strains of Island music filled the room and she began to sing.  They were newer songs than what her father and mother had played, and unfamiliar to Ken.  He sat in his chair, his lips still drawn in a tight, straight line.  Transitioning one song into another, the two women harmonized away the afternoon.  Ken hardly moved a muscle.

Her fingers moved across the strings once again and suddenly familiar music filled the air followed by the memorable lyrics from long ago, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.  You make me happy……..”  It was if the very sun had broken through the clouds.  Ken’s face came alive and he looked over at me, a broad smile erupting on his mouth.  Her words continued, somehow finding a path through the fog of tangled and forgotten memory.  Lovingly he looked at me, just me, and then he winked and pursed his lips as if to blow a quick kiss.   We were two souls locked in a moment of warmth by yesteryear’s melody and words.  A tear or two of happiness spilled down my cheeks, and I felt gratitude for Marvalee’s thoughtfulness and music, and for my brief flash of joy.

Marvalee played a bit longer; songs from the past and Ken continued to smile, but not in the same way and not at me.  Music had reached him, and he must have experienced a spark of reality and realized that something pleasant had taken place. For a time he was social and polite. “Thank you,” he called as the two women left.  I walked them to the door and gave each another hug and another “Aloah, thank you.”  “It was my pleasure,” Marvalee whispered.  “I got to see Ken smile — just at you.”

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A few months ago while still healing from major injuries, I browsed through a stack of magazines, mostly untouched. However, as I shuffled through the pile, I noticed my church magazine, the pages already dog-eared, was opened to an article intended to be the next read. Interesting, I thought picking it up and noting the eye-catching title, “GRATITUDE,” then asking, “Was this a message for me?” Certainly, I felt gratitude. After all I was alive and recovering, and yet I was nudged at times with, “Poor me.  Angry me.  Why me?”  Perhaps I needed to ponder about gratitude a bit more deeply.

Written by a practicing psychologist who had researched the use of gratitude interventions in promoting well-being, he found that by interceding at appropriate times during counseling, thoughts of gratitude were helpful in treating depression and other problems. The doctor also advised that acknowledging thankfulness would be helpful to everyone’s mental health no matter how grave their situation. As a result of being grateful, we could all lead richer, fuller lives.

He also defined gratitude: a positive experience when we recognize gifts or blessings and feel thankful.  It sounded so overly simplistic, yet I continued reading.  Soon I began to reflect on this later portion of my life concentrating on the positive rather than the negative.

In my own defense I counceled me that I have always been prayerful.  As a child, my teachers of faith described prayer as like a sandwich:  a top and bottom piece of bread, or better known in addressing Diety as a beginning and an ending.  Inside of the prayer sandwich we were to express our thankfulness first.   “Before we ask our Heavenly Father for anything,” he explained, “we must always remember to thank Him for what He has given us.”  That could be the peanut butter portion of the sandwich.  The teacher followed giving thanks with permission to ask — the jam or jelly.   As an adult I have wondered if this pattern for prayer was a bit irreverent, but it is such a good pattern, one which I have followed all of my life, and long ago I put aside any thoughts of peanut butter and jelly when making supplication.  Perhaps now, I needed to be more outreaching in my gratitude. 

I recalled from the past that Oprah devoted the better part of a year’s programming to gratitude and journal writing. At the time, I too was caught up in the thought process of making myself more aware of blessings, but never kept a specific journal. Recently, in her magazine, Oprah admitted that through the years she had become so consumed with work there was no time left to write about the good happenings of each day. Reading from an old journal she recognized those great years from before, and commented on how happy she had been.

 The author of the “GRATITUDE” article encourages keeping a Gratitude Journal as well, with the purpose of recording several remembrances each week, but not just in list form. He suggested describing the experience, recording thoughts and emotions for the purpose of savoring and reliving what you had experienced.

In reviewing the past six years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, battling the war which is never won, I remember my friend, Madalyn, who had also battled the same war, until her husband, Darwin, died three years ago. “It wasn’t all bad,” she would tell me, and we often laughed about some of the funny things Alzheimer’s victims do and say. She reminisced about trips they had taken, visits with family which brought joy to her and momentary pleasantries to him. Her happier times with Darwin were similar to mine with Ken. These were all positive experiences: gifts and blessings recognized and thankfulness felt: gratitude.

When I came to the paragraph titled “Express Prayers of Gratitude,” I decided that would be my new beginning. As I continued my recovery in the quietness of my daughter’s home I reflected on being grateful for little things:   One at a time I could lift each foot, place it on the opposite knee and tie my own shoes, I could shower alone and I was beginning to feel confident once more. I wasn’t searching for big, dramatic epiphanies.   Deliberately, I looked for small things to appreciate because there are so many, and small blessings are often overlooked.  Every morning before I struggled out of bed I would look up at the ceiling — still wearing my neck brace and unable to kneel in formal address to Diety — close my eyes and offer a prayer of gratitude without pleading for any favors. (The favors could be requested in later prayers.) My morning prayers would be only of gratitude. I was amazed by the multitude of gifts taken for granted  for which I had to be grateful.

I have been home now for more than two months and my gratitude list grows each day. Ken’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, but because of his caregiver, Ben, I have a sense of freedom. If I write for a few hours during the day, I know Ken is all right. Ben is with him, and I can nap undisturbed because Ben is here. I am grateful for Ben and for his relief, David. I am grateful for each new day, and my growing ability to actually help Ben with Ken. I am eternally grateful for family and friends. I won’t say I’m grateful for Ken’s illness, because I am not.  I detest this dehumanizing disease and how it has robbed us of so many good years. However, I am grateful for my coping mechanism, my compassion and awareness of others who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other devastating illnesses. I am grateful that through my writing I may help someone else; letting them know they are not alone in their struggle. I am grateful for Ken and the wonderful years we have spent together. Every so often, I see a spark in his eye and a smile. For a moment he is the man I married. Feeling gratitude and offering thanks each morning for all of this and more gives me strength.  Each day I can and will go forward into our daily battle, beginning with a prayer of gratitude.

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Remember watching the PBS special series which took place during the 1800s where the rich European noblemen and their wives had dozens of servants scattered throughout the castle: butlers, upstairs and downstairs maids, a seamstress or two, cooks and bakers plus scads of additional kitchen help.  Outside there were gardeners, stable boys, coachmen and countless others to keep the grounds manicured and trimmed, and the carriages polished.  It took a lot of people to keep those palaces functioning and presentable. To head up the staff was the prim and proper housekeeper who, with help from the butler, supervised the staff making sure their work was always done; accomplished quickly, quietly and out of sight from the manor’s lord and lady; except possibly, for his groom, her personal maids and the children’s nanny.  The “upper crust” did not fraternize with the help. 

Even in America the mansions of the early 19th century boasted servants quarters in their elegant three and four story mansions where it was normal for the help to “live in.”   Economics, career opportunities and life styles have changed the previous opulent society from normal to unusual.  However, it isn’t unusual for busy people in all walks of life to enlist cleaning services and gardeners on a weekly schedule, or occasionally to help catch up on the often dreary tasks of home maintenance, but for the most part, most people do everything themselves

Ken and I were always do-it-yourselfers, learning early on that by doing you got more bang from your buck, plus the satisfaction of a job well done.  Whether it was adding an extra room, painting the house – inside and out — bricking in a patio, building fences, landscaping the front yard, caring for the children or keeping the house clean we did it ourselves.  Consequently, I found coming home after my three months of recovery and recuperation a bit disconcerting to have “help” in my house on a permanent basis.   What’s more, it made me wonder who’s the boss?

I knew, without a doubt, that my family had made the very best of decisions in my absence, yet to find Ben (Ken’s caregiver and a person I didn’t know) busy in my kitchen preparing food for my husband  — and me — felt very odd.  Not only does Ben care for Ken, he cooks, keeps up with the houseswork and laundry (which he folds to perfection) and polishes the furniture when company is coming.   However, I still wasn’t sure if I was at ease with this new arrangement, feeling at first as if I didn’t quiet fit anywhere in my own home.  But doing a reality check I also knew that I would have to change; caring for Ken as I had done before the accident was a thing of the past — something I could no longer do —  especially considering all of his new needs.  Even though I was capable of taking care of myself, it was, perhaps, a good thing to still require rest and a nap when my energy level plunged, and appreciate Ben’s presence.  I was the one who still had months of therapy for my neck and knees, and I was the one who needed time to make an attitude adjustment.

Unlike the gentry of long ago who didn’t fraternize with the help, a few months have passed allowing me to become comfortable with Ben and I believe him with me.  In addition, there is David who is Ben’s relief (granddaughter Kristina, who was living with us, takes the night shift).  Having other adults in the house has been a surprise bonus – someone else to talk with.  I have also met and admire the wives of both men, finding the four new treasures in my life.  They are all career caregivers – a noble calling – kind and gentle, but firm when need be with the childlike adults whom they assist.

An auto accident wasn’t a path I would have chosen, nor would I have pressed the “select” button for a six-year continuing assignment with Alzheimer’s, but I have learned to accept those things I cannot change.  Life has taken me to this point where help is required and it is with gratitude and growing affection that I give thanks for Ben and David.  Their hard work and devotion continually touches my heart.  But even more, I am grateful that I am not stayed by some silly tradition from generations past.  I can, and do, enjoy and appreciate their friendship.

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Ken, Mabel and his daughters Julie and Debbie and daughters-in-law, Mary and Sabina at his 80th birthday 2005

This is, possibly, my last guest post. My mom should be back here writing next week – or soon thereafter.  Debbie Schultz

One of the blessings that came from my turn at caregiving was a chance to become reacquainted with my dad. Obviously he is not the strong, but gentle man, who raised me, helped me through a divorce, get back into school, and proudly watched me graduate from college at the age of 41. This man is definitely different, interesting in his babbling, making sense only in fragments. He was always a great storyteller, but even that aspect is gone from his tangled brain. I see his personality in layers. Some of the facial expressions I remember as a little girl, the mannerisms are still there. When I first arrived here from my home in Utah, he was lying in a hospital bed, mumbling in heavily sedated sleep. He seemed so very old and vulnerable to me. I softly stroked his head and muttered my good byes, thinking that might be the end. But like my mother, he has a tremendous will to live, and two weeks out of the hospital, he is gradually becoming his old pre-accident, self.

The disease is horrifying, taking a person a bit at a time, but in a somewhat detached way, it is also fascinating. What makes a personality? What bits and pieces of one’s history stick, and why do they stick? What jogs memories? Why do some things stand out, while others are forgotten? When asked, he will say he has no children. He confuses me with my mother, but I correct him and tell him that I am his daughter and I love him. I  especially use the technique when I am doing things he doesn’t want done, like showers. Looking in his eyes and telling him seems to calm him. I call it speaking spirit to spirit. And when my daughter goes to move something of mine, he says, “Don’t touch that, it’s my daughter’s.” For a brief moment I am remembered.

He knows he was in an accident. The first few days he was home from the hospital he complained about being stiff and sore. He told me that he hurt because a truck hit him. He knows, when he remembers, that my mother is in the hospital. His love for her, despite the forgetfulness is so evident. Besides often asking where his wife is, there is wistfulness in his wanderings. He sleeps on his side of the bed, waiting for her to come. He asks me if she is working and if so, when will she return home?   Although my voice may sound the same, my reactions are different than hers. He is confused by the similarities.

I am grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to get to know my father all over again. I have more feelings for him as I have served him these past few months. I miss the man that he once was, but I love this frail, funny, shuffling person he has become. Who knows why we go through the things we do in this life? As hateful as this disease is, it often brings out the best in the people that it touches. I have gained a new appreciation for my mother and all she has gone through as she cared for the other members of our family, who were also struck down by Alzheimer’s. The positive side of this negative situation is the opportunity I have been given to serve my father and make some effort to understand what has happened to change him. Without caring for him, there would not have been the reconnection I have felt.  When he is truly gone I will not only mourn the man my father was, I will also mourn who he has become. I am indebted for the chance that I got to know that other man.

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